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Spanish Olives and Olive Oil
A Question of Taste
Article Submitted by: Roger Davies
Roger Davies arrived in Spain in 1987 and set up his company A Question of Taste in 2002 after working in the Spanish wine industry. Based in Seville his company offers a wide range of activities realted to food and wine, including gastronomic breaks, one-day excursions, tapas tours, wine-tasting and cooking classes.

An olive grove in Andalucia, Spain
An olive grove in Andalucia, Spain

In Spain as in all Mediterranean countries olive oil forms one of the basic pillars of the cuisine. Many people start the day with olive oil drizzled on toast. Then for lunch and dinner there will be olive oil in your salad, in your gazpacho or your stew as well as being used for frying almost everything.  Also, lots of Spanish pastries and desserts use olive oil as an ingredient. There’s even olive oil ice-cream!

Spain is the world’s biggest producer of olive oil with around 30% of total production. Of this 30 % around half comes from Andalusia. Anyone who has driven through the province of Jaen will not be surprised by this as it seems the sea of olive trees goes on forever.

Harvesting the olives by hand in Andalucia, Spain
Harvesting the olives by hand in Andalucia, Spain

The olive tree arrived in Spain with the Phoenicians at around 1050 B.C. and soon Spain become a supplier of olive oil to other parts of the Mediterranean. Production was intensified with the arrival of the Romans who ruled most of Spain from 212 B.C. to AD 422. Spain became the main supplier of the Roman empire, evidence of which was discovered when excavations were made in 1878 of Mount Testaccio near the port of Ostia in Italy. This isolated hill which is 35m high with a perimeter of about 1 mile was found to be made of fragments of amphorae that had once contained olive oil, which had mostly come from Spain. It has been calculated that the amphorae would have contained 2000 million litres of olive oil!!
The arrival of the Moors in the 8th century also brought improvements in olive oil production. Olive oil came to be associated with the Moors and during part of the Christian ‘reconquest’ of Spain, it was looked down upon as being inferior to other products such as lard! Luckily, this discrimination did not last for long with olive oil production increasing over the centuries. Nowadays, production is mainly on an industrial scale with some smaller artisanal producers still surviving

A hydraulic olive oil press
A hydraulic olive oil press

Olives for olive oil are harvested between November and February when the olive is black or is turning black. (Olives for eating are picked when the fruit is still green in September or October). After being air blown and cleaned in water to remove all leaves and dirt they are milled to form a paste. In modern installations centrifuges are then used to separate the liquid from the solid part and the water content from the oil. In traditional olive oil mills circular mats with a layer of olive paste are stacked one on top of each other. These are then squeezed together through hydraulic pressure thus releasing the liquid. This is transferred to vats where the oil and water separate from each other. For olive oil to be classed as extra virgen only mechanical methods can be used. Also, olives must be processed as soon after harvesting as possible to ensure an acidity of less than 1º. Acidity is a reflection of how healthy the olives used are, the lower the level the better Heat and chemical treatments are only allowed for refined olive oils which are of a much lower quality.

There are many different varieties of olive, and olive oil is now becoming like wine with the names of the types of olive on the label of bottles. People have also started to use different oils for different purposes. Some of the most popular olives used for oil in Spain are Arbequina, Cornicabra, Empeltre, Hojiblanca, Picual and Picudo. Arbequina comes mainly from Catalonia but is now spreading to other areas in Spain. Cornicabra occurs principally in the province of Toledo whilst Empeltre is found mainly in the southern part of Aragon and the south of Catalonia. Hojiblanca is grown in the provinces of Seville, Cordoba and Málaga whilst Picual the olive that produces the most oil in the world is mainly centred on the province of Jaen. Lastly, Picudo is the flagship olive of the province of Córdoba

A modern olive oil mill
A modern olive oil mill

Arbequina and Empeltre produce light fruity oils which are not suitable for frying. Use them with food that is not too strong that will not mask their taste, over fresh cheese or with light salads. I oil is fruity but more robust being slighty bitter and peppery. Very good for frying and with most food that is not too subtle. I oil has a typical fresh grass flavour with an almondy slightly peppery aftertaste; good for light frying and most salads. Picudo and Picual produce oils that are quite peppery with fruity and grassy flavours. Picual which is the stronger flavoured of the two is the most stable of olive oils and is very good for frying. Olive oil from both varieties is ideal if you want a strong taste of oil or with strong flavoured dishes. Drizzle them over anchovies, smoked fish and use them in stews.

So now that your appetite has been whetted slice up a tomato or two, sprinkle with coarse salt and liberally drizzle some fine extra virgen olive oil over everything. Eat the tomatoes together with una barra de pan (Spanish baguette) to help you soak up the oil. ¡Buen provecho!